Westminster Expedition Students in the Open American West

During the 2017 Fall Semester, 14 students, two professors, and a program coordinator will load books, camping gear, and themselves into a couple of vans and hit the road for a semester-long tour of the American West.

The trip is designed as an exploration into the issues at the heart of the contemporary West. Students will earn 16 credits in environmental studies and history as they study Environmental Cooperation and Conflict, Landscape and Meaning, the History of Public Lands, and the Native West.

This prolonged journey into the field will allow us to learn directly from landscapes and ecosystems, as well as from people who live, work, and study in those places. Together, we expect to build a cohort of impassioned scholars with a particular breadth and depth of experiential knowledge who are equipped to build a better future for the West.

We will visit iconic, protected sites like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, contentious places like the Little Bighorn and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, working landscapes like the Butte Copper Mines, and communities from present-day Native nations to "New West" towns like Bend, Twisp, and Moab.

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Learn More About the Students and Faculty on the Expedition

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Oh Otter

October 27, 2017

Madeleine Humel

As we pulled our vans into the campground at Fort Worden State Park, located in Port Townsend, WA, I could see a bit of ocean glimmering by the edge of the park, calling my name and begging to be explored. After the trailer was unloaded and my tent was set up, my friend and I eagerly made our way to the water to catch what would be left of the sunset.

We planted ourselves on the pier of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, and as I glanced around the bay my friend exclaimed she saw something in the water! And there they were, a bunch of small sea critters swimming around right in front of our eyes. At first glance I could have sworn that those critters were otters, but weren't sea otters extinct in this area? A food web diagram of Port Townsend Bay was conveniently located on the side of the building right behind us. As we examined this display, the sea otter was nowhere to be found. The idea that we saw an otter in the bay was dismissed, we confirmed it was just a harbor seal, and we headed back to camp for the night.

Inspired by the sunset the night before, my friend and I decided it would also be worth it to wake up extra early to head to the beach to watch the sunrise. We sat on the same dock as the night before, waiting for the morning light to peak itself over the rolling fog. My eyes were also focusing on the water in front of me, hoping to see more seals as I did the previous night. Not to our surprise, it didn't take long until we saw the little brown heads of sea critters bobbing up and down right in front of us. While we were watching these small creatures swimming around, it didn't take long for one to dive down to catch its breakfast. Once the fish was gobbled up, a head went back down under and a long thin pointy tail jetted out of the water. This was surely not the tail of a harbor seal, but really one that resembled an otter. I was overcome with joy—I had never seen an otter before! But why wasn't the sea otter included on the food web?

Later that morning, we were lucky enough to be able and take sea kayaks out on the bay. As we headed onto the water, our guide told us to keep an eye out for wildlife such as harbor seals and porpoises. I was inclined to ask about my otter sighting earlier that day and why the otter was excluded from this area's food web. It turns out that the sea otter was hunted to extinction in the Port Townsend area around the early 1900s for their thick and high quality fur. The sea otter was keystone species in this area and the loss of them had devastating effects on organisms ranging anywhere from kelp to humans.

So why did I see an otter? Upon even further investigation, I learned that the river otter had filled the niche of sea otters in the ecosystem. River otters live in bushes next to the ocean and go into the water around sunrise or sunset to hunt for food. Although the river otter is not the original species, its newfound role has helped this ecosystem keep in balance. Nature is something that is always changing and adapting to human error.

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Expedition in the News

Two people on a canoe
Group of Students around Campfire

The Route

Our proposed route is an enormous figure eight, heading northwest first (because of potential early winter weather) and including Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Course-related sites include sites of environmental/cultural conflict or cooperation (e.g., Malheur National Wildlife Refuge; East Tavaputs Plateau tar sands; Klamath River dams; the Berkeley Pit, the Nevada Test Site, Owens Lake); National Parks (e.g., Yellowstone, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood, Grand Canyon, Great Basin); wilderness areas (e.g., Bob Marshall, Glacier Peak); Native nations and sites (e.g., Burns Paiute, Coast Salish, Miwok, the Nez Perce trail, Colville, Pyramid Lake, Hopi); dam sites (e.g., Teton, Grand Coulee, Hoover, Hetch Hetchy, Snake River); and relevant towns/cities (e.g., Bozeman, Bend, Cody, Moab, Winthrop, Page).

Expedition Route

Course Descriptions

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